The high jump. The long fall. The call from God

In 1973, Rochester’s Rod Raver high jumped 7-foot-1 to set the high school state record. Nearly 50 years later, that record still stands. After that jump, though, Raver spent the next decade in a freefall. Until, he says, God caught him.

Rod Raver
Rod Raver on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at John Marshall High School in Rochester, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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Rod Raver, with his long blond hair sticking out from under his black helmet and over his new blue jean jacket, was riding his 1971 Suzuki Savage east down The Beltline—what Rochesterites from Raver’s era call what’s now Highway 14—toward the Dairy Queen.

He was heading to RCTC—it was still Rochester Community College, then—for his daily track and field practice.

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It was June of 1974. A sunny day. Clear skies as far as Rod Raver could see.

It wouldn’t have been unheard of for someone, in the city of then-50,000, to have recognized the six-foot-five-inch Raver as he rode past on that street-legal dirt bike.

That’s the kid from JM who high jumps over seven feet. The kid who set the state high school record. The kid who could be high jumping in the next Olympics.


At that moment, Rod Raver, 19, felt like he had it all.

Back at home—and home was still with his parents—he had that gold medal from the high school jump, an issue of Sports Illustrated with his picture in it, an invitation letter from the U.S. Olympic Committee.

After practice, he planned to hang out with his high school sweetheart, Barb.

Then the blue Chrysler New Yorker pulled out in front of him. And then the front wheel of Raver’s Suzuki hit the Chrysler’s passenger side door. And then Raver’s head—and he figures he was pinwheeling—dented the roof of that Chrysler as he flew over top of it and landed on the concrete.
An off-duty cop and a doctor saw the accident. Ran over to Raver. An ambulance, they told him, was on the way.

His shoulder, he knew, was dislocated.

Here’s all Rod Raver, lying there on The Beltline, could think to say: “I told them not to cut off my new jean jacket,” he says. “And I wanted to know about my right knee, which felt weird. The knee on my jumping leg.”

The EMTs were able to save the jacket. The knee, though, would never be the same.

And neither, it turns out, would Rod Raver.


“I laid on the ground for maybe a half hour or so,” says Raver. “But it took me 10 years to really get back up from that fall. And, even then, I was only able to get back up after God told me to.”

‘I lived for track and field days’

From as early as he can remember, Rod Raver could jump higher than other kids.

Born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in 1955, Rod’s family moved to Rochester in 1957 when his dad, Ray, took a sales job at A.B. Dick, a local printing company. Rod’s mom, Averill—though everyone called her “Peggy”—was a “100 percent Irish housewife,” says Raver.

Rod and his one-year-younger brother, Mike, grew up in Elton Hills, when the northwest Rochester neighborhood’s 1,200 acres were still a decade-plus away from the area’s single-family housing boom. They played by the river and built tree forts in the woods.

“We played everything growing up—baseball, football, wrestling,” says the 67-year-old Raver, drinking coffee—he drinks a lot of coffee—in the Dunn Bros. just a long baseball throw away from the house where he grew up. His hair is still long. “I lived for track and field days at Elton Hills.”

When Rod was young, his dad drove to the Sears store in Des Moines. He came home with a 12-foot bamboo pole vaulting pole strapped to the side of the station wagon.

“We were pole vaulting into the sand pits that day,” says Raver. “Then the track and field days would come around and I’d win the pole vault and the high jump and the long jump. It was just something I excelled at, so I wanted to do it even more.”


By the time he was in Kellogg Middle School, Raver was setting records in the vault and high jump. The track coach at John Marshall—the legendary Ron Werner—asked Rod to join the high school team.

Raver agreed.

Through the late 1960s, many high jumpers, Raver included, used the Western Roll technique, in which you basically jump and roll your body over the bar.

Rod Raver competing in the high jump for John Marshall High School.

Then came the 1968 Summer Olympics. And Dick Fosbury. His Fosbury Flop—the headfirst-arched-back-over-the bar style you see now—won him the gold medal. And changed high jumping forever.

“The highest I had jumped with the Western Roll was 6-foot-3,” says Raver. “Then Fosbury changed everything for me.”

On his first-ever try with the new technique, Raver set a personal best of 6-foot-4. “I knew right away this was the perfect style for me,” he says, “and my career just accelerated from there. I was an average student in school. But I really studied the high jump.”

In tenth grade, he jumped 6-3 and placed second at the High School State Track and Field Championships. His junior year, he won it all with a jump of 6-6.

Craig Sheets, Raver’s high jump coach at JM, was also the psychology teacher. And he used that psychology on Rod.

“He kept you hungry,” says Raver. “Whenever I would achieve my highest jump, he’d make me quit. His philosophy—and I believe it’s true—was ‘I want you to remember that you quit on a good note, a high. If you try for the next height, and you miss, then you’re just going to remember that you failed.’”

After that championship jump of his junior year, Raver was interviewed by longtime Post Bulletin sports reporter Bob Brown.

“I told him I wanted to jump 7 feet my senior year,” Raver says. “I told him that was the goal I’d set for myself.”

The next day, that was the headline in the PB sports section: “Raver sets high jump goal: 7 feet.”

“I saw that and thought, ‘Oh, no, now I’ve got to do it,’” Raver says. “The highest I’d ever jumped was 6-foot-8. The national record was Dwight Stone at 7-1-and-a-half. I knew I had a lot of work to do.”

So Raver took the high jump pit—the bars and the big foam pad—home for the summer. Wore out a path in his lawn jumping off the grass in his backyard. Spent the winter jumping off the gym floor.

JM Rochord 1973 Raver_back row far left.jpg
The 1973 John Marshall Track and Field team, with Raver in the back row, far left.

And Rod Raver dominated the high jump from Day One of the 1973 Minnesota High School Track and Field season.

He won every meet that year. At the Big Nine Conference meet, Raver finished in the top three in the pole vault, the long jump, and the triple jump. He won the high jump.

He had never, though, jumped 7 feet. His highest jump for the year—ever, actually—was 6-10.

Coach Sheets wouldn’t let him try any higher.

Then came the Minnesota High School Track and Field Championships, 1973.

The Highest Jump

“It was a hot, humid day in St. Cloud,” says Raver. “It was between 85 and 90 degrees. That just drains your energy. I just kept sitting under the bleachers the whole time.”

Gerald Burrell, from Minneapolis North, had jumped 6-9 earlier in the season. Raver knew he’d be the one to beat.
Rod Raver started jumping with the bar at 6-2. He cleared it on his first attempt of the three chances for each height.

He cleared 6-4 on his first attempt. Then 6-6. Then 6-8.

Burrell missed all three tries at 6-8. Raver was the champ. The only jumper left.

But, this time, Coach Sheets certainly wasn’t stopping him.

“Raver took hardly any time between jumps,” according to the PB story. “As soon as they reset the bar he was jumping over it.”

“I laid on the ground for maybe a half hour or so,” says Raver. “But it took me 10 years to really get back up from that fall. And, even then, I was only able to get back up after God told me to.”
Rod Raver

By now, the crowd was starting to pay attention. Raver, his long hair flying even on his five-step approach, cleared 6-10 on his first try.

They set the bar at 7-0.

“The whole meet stopped,” says Raver. “When it got to 7 feet, they made an announcement that this was a new record attempt. There were maybe 5,000 people there and they stopped the other events.”

The entire crowd—including Rod’s parents, who rarely missed a meet, and girlfriend Barb—watched the single high jumper. The other athletes were watching as well.

Rod Raver cleared 7 feet on his first try.

The crowd went crazy.

The officials set the bar at 7-1.

Raver took those five measured steps, pushed off on that right knee—his drive leg—twisted his body perpendicular to the crossbar, sent the back of his head over the crossbar, arched his shoulders over the bar, then his back, tucked his chin into his chest, kicked his feet over the crossbar.

He landed shoulders first, like he should, in the foam pit. Looked up to see the crossbar still on its standards.

“They didn’t allow the coaches on the field,” says Raver. “Coach Sheets was standing by the chain link fence, and I jumped right out of the pit and ran over to him and gave him a hug. Yeah, it was pretty cool.”

Raver asked for the crossbar to be set at 7-1-and-three quarters inches. A quarter inch higher than Dwight Stones’ national record.

Raver missed on all three tries.

But the high school record was set. The legend was cemented.

“Raver’s performance in that 1973 state meet in St. Cloud,” wrote the Post Bulletin, “has to rank among the most outstanding high school athletic achievements in Minnesota history.”

And they were right. Nearly 50 years later, Rod Raver’s high jump still stands as the Minnesota High School Track and Field record.

The Long Fall

Rod Raver “got calls from colleges all over the country,” he says. He signed with Iowa State, one of the best track programs in the nation, to high jump in Division I. Picked up the Sports Illustrated with his picture in it. Got those calls and letters from the U.S. Olympic Committee about trying out for the 1976 games, to be held in Montreal.

His freshman year at Iowa State, though, did not go as planned. He and a number of track athletes had a falling out with the coach, who would be fired the next season.

So Rod Raver came back to Rochester. Enrolled at RCC. In his first year there, he jumped 7 feet and won the National Indoor Junior College High Jump Championships.

He knew he had a real shot to make the ‘76 Olympic team. Set his sights on the upcoming Olympic Trials.

Then that Chrysler New Yorker pulled in front of him. Then he pinwheeled over that car and landed on the pavement. Then he felt the pain in his knee. His right knee. His plant knee.

The medial collateral ligament—the MCL, the ligament that connects your thigh bone to your shin bone, the tough band of tissue that stabilizes your knee from moving side to side—was torn.

Rod Raver spent the next year going through rehab and getting Cortisone injections. But his knee would give out just stepping off a curb or skipping a stair.
When he went back to the RCC track to really try high jumping—after that year of rehab—he took those first four steps of his approach. Then, on that fifth step, when he pushed off with his right leg, his kneecap shot out sideways. And locked there.

Rod Raver would never high jump competitively again.

“I felt like my identity was gone,” says Raver. “And that’s a sad thing when a person puts all his identity into one thing, because there’s so much more to a person’s identity than what they do, right? I wish I would have realized that then. But I didn’t. And here’s the truth: I spent the next 10 years in a tailspin.”

He married Barb, his high school sweetheart, in 1976. They were both 21.

“I felt like my identity was gone. And that’s a sad thing when a person puts all his identity into one thing, because there’s so much more to a person’s identity than what they do, right?”
Rod Raver

She went to nursing school and got a job at Mayo as a coronary care nurse. He opened a woodworking business, built a little shop in the garage where he made high-end, hardwood furniture. Dining room tables, mostly. He was good at it. But the money was sporadic.

“It’s a good thing my wife was a nurse, put it that way,” he says.

But Rod Raver was lost.

“And I did all the crazy things people do when they’re lost,” he says.

Rod got money from a lawsuit—he’d sued the driver who had caused his accident. “I did get a pretty good chunk of money at the time for a 21-year-old,” he says. “I blew it all. I bought a car, a boat, a motorcycle, and guns, because I didn’t care. And of course, when you get those things and you didn’t earn them, they don’t mean anything to you.”

And Raver started partying. Hard.

“When you do good in something and become known in a small town, you’ve got all sorts of friends,” he says. “They aren’t your friends because of who you are. They’re friends because of what you did. There was always someone to go out with to relive the glory days.”

Petty soon, he says, he was so hungover in the mornings that he was just going into that woodworking shop to sleep it off on the workbench. Barb just figured he was working.

Finally, he didn’t even try to hide his drinking.

“I’d leave on Friday night to go out and I would finally be coming home on a Sunday morning and pass Barb as she was coming or going from work. When I started losing everything because I was so messed up in my addiction, I had to start selling all that stuff I had bought with the settlement money.”

In 1982, Barb gave birth to their first child, daughter Rachel.

“At that point,” Raver says, “I realized I needed to make a change. I remember looking over at Rachel sitting in her stroller and saying to myself, ‘How long am I going to keep doing what I’m doing? If I want my daughter to have a good life, I have to change.’”

The Call from God

“It was a hot day, July 9 of 1984,” says Raver. “I was hungover, and woke up in the woodshop. I was so sick of what I was doing in my life. I prayed and asked God to help me.”

Raver, he says, was never a religious man. Two months earlier, though, he was in Utah visiting his grandmother, who was dying. One night, he was lying in the backyard of his cousin’s house. “I was looking at the stars and thinking ‘What is life all about? I’ve got to get my act cleaned up.’”

Then all of a sudden, he says, a breeze came out of nowhere. He was covered in goosebumps. And covered, he says, in a feeling he’d never experienced before. “I crawled under my blanket like I did when I was a kid. I just felt that something special was happening and I didn’t know what it was.”

Now, on that hot July Rochester night two months later, with no AC in the house, he was lying in bed with the windows open, listening to the crickets chirping.

“All of the sudden, out of nowhere, this breeze comes through the drapes, and I felt this overwhelming presence. I can’t even describe it, but it comes over me and says, ‘Rod, I love you. I want you to clean your act up.’”
Rod Raver

“I know it sounds crazy,” Raver says, “but I heard this little inner voice. It said ‘Rod, look out the window.’ I sat up and looked out the bedroom window and the voice said ‘No. Go to the living room.’”

Rod Raver got up, water bed sloshing, afraid he’d wake his wife. Afraid she’d ask why he was getting up. Afraid he’d have to tell her it was because he was hearing a voice.

He went to the living room window and looked out. It was completely still. He saw nothing. He went back to bed. Thought he was going crazy.

He heard the voice again. “Rod, get up and go look out the window.”

He believed, then, it was actually God speaking to him. So he got up again. Looked out the open window.

“All of the sudden, out of nowhere, this breeze comes through the drapes, and I felt this overwhelming presence,” Raver says. “I can’t even describe it, but it comes over me and says, ‘Rod, I love you. I want you to clean your act up.’ It spoke in my terms. ‘I want you to clean your act up.’ It was the same breeze I had felt two months before. At that moment, I felt like everything had changed.”

He got up the next morning, he says, to go see his friends. Not to go drinking. But to tell them what happened.

“They said ‘You’re nuts,’” he says. “My friends distanced themselves because they wanted to keep partying. They didn’t want to be part of the clean-up act. A lot of them to this day are still messed up. Some of them have died.”

Rod waited, though, a few months before he told Barb. He’d promised her that he’d get clean so many times before he knew she wouldn’t believe him.

“My change was almost instantaneous,” he says. “I got involved with Assembly of God Church. I got a whole new group of friends.”

He took a job at IBM putting together disk drives on an assembly line. Eventually worked his way up to senior lab technician.

Son Ryan was born in June of 1985.

And then, Rod Raver made his way back to the John Marshall High School track. He took a position coaching the field events, alongside his former coaches, Ron Werner and Craig Sheets.

“Coaching helped me as much as it helped the kids,” Raver says. “It made me realize I could give back again.”

In the 1986 season, he worked with Linda Barsness, the 6-foot-2-inch senior who had become a dominant force in the high school high jump.

In 1986, Linda Barsness set the girls high jump record at the Minnesota High School Track and Field Championship Meet. That record still stands in Class AA. She went undefeated in Minnesota high school high jumping for three straight years. And track probably wasn’t even her best sport.

“She was a natural. Very dedicated. Very hard worker,” he says.

“It was cool to have him as a coach,” says Barsness (now Linda Bay), from her home in San Diego. “It was the first time that an actual high jumper had helped me.”

And on that hot day in Osseo, at the 1986 Minnesota High School Girls Track and Field championships, Linda Barsness jumped 5-10 to win the meet, and set the state record. That record still stands, 35 years later, as the top jump at the state championships.

“It was awesome. It was fantastic,” says Raver. “I got to see it from 20 feet away. I got to be part of it.”

Raver went on to work at Western Digital and, for the last 15 years, has worked as a lab tech putting together high-end computers for Liquid Cool Solutions.

He volunteers with Network for Life, where he ministers to convicts and remodels rental houses to help get them back on their feet with a place to live.

“It’s great to see people get a second chance,” Raver says. “I know what that can mean.”

Barb retired after 38 years at Mayo Clinic.

“I’m honestly surprised she stuck with me,” he says. “She used to say she wished we had a Beaver Cleaver family. She would pray for that. But for some reason she stuck it out. I’m so glad she did.”

Barb and Rod recently moved to Florida. They talk to their kids most every day. Spend a lot of time with their three Weimaraners.

From left: Rachel and Ryan with parents Rod and Barb Raver.

And, nearly 50 years later, Rod Raver looks back on that jump in 1973—that record-setting day—with a different perspective.

“I was so blessed to have that jump be part of my life,” he says. “I still meet people after all these years that say ‘Hey, you were the high jumper.’ And that’s kind of cool. At the same time, I’d rather have, ‘Hey, that’s Rod Raver. He’s more than just a high jumper.’”

The fall, he says, made him a better person as well.

“Going through it all made me a better father for my kids, made me a better husband to my wife. It just changed me for the better. It took me a long time to realize those things were more important than anything else. It took me a long time to realize it’s not what you already did. It’s what you can do going forward.”

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